Fraud: Laws and Penalties

A conviction for a crime involving fraud can lead to serious penalties, including prison time, fines, and restitution orders.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated June 03, 2022

Fraud involves using a lie, deception, falsehood, or dishonesty in an attempt to gain a benefit. The states and the federal governments have identified numerous types of fraud as criminal. We'll review a few of the most common fraud crimes below.

What Is Fraud?

Fraud isn't typically a crime by itself but, rather, forms the basis for numerous criminal acts. The common elements of a fraud crime include:

  • unlawfully obtaining or attempting to obtain a benefit
  • through the use of deceit, lies, or false representations, and
  • with the intent of cheating or deceiving the victim.

For some fraud crimes, the prosecution must also prove the victim relied on the defendant's misrepresentations.

State and Federal Crimes Based on Fraud

Both the federal government and the individual states have numerous laws that criminalize various types of fraud. Depending on the circumstances of the case, fraudulent activity can be either a state or federal crime, or both. This means that person who commits an act of fraud could be in violation of both federal and state law at the same time and prosecuted for both.

Types of Fraud Crimes

Too many fraud crimes exist to list them all here. These crimes can be as broad as mail or health care fraud or as specific as bank insurance fraud or prescription opioid fraud. Below are just a few of the major fraud crimes you've likely heard of.

Mail Fraud

Mail fraud is one of the most commonly charged federal crimes. It applies to any scheme to defraud that involves using the U.S. Postal Service or other interstate delivery services. For example, a con artist might send a letter to a victim in an attempt to convince the victim to hand over money. Even if the con artist is unsuccessful in his attempt, using the mail in an attempt to commit fraud violates the federal mail fraud law.

Wire Fraud

Wire fraud, like mail fraud, is a federal crime—one that is quite broad and applicable to numerous types of activity. Wire fraud occurs whenever a person uses a telephone, electronic communication device, or a computer with Internet access to commit an act of fraud.

Computer and Internet Fraud

Computer fraud covers a broad range of criminal activity, including hacking into a computer or computer network intending to defraud someone. The act of defrauding could include altering or deleting records, accessing financial or other information, or obtaining something of value. Acts of internet fraud sometimes overlap with computer fraud. Some common internet fraud schemes include identity theft, phishing schemes, charitable contribution fraud, employment fraud, investment fraud, and financial scams.

Counterfeiting or Forgery

Anyone who produces counterfeit currency, documents, or goods also commits a type of fraud. Counterfeiting currency is a federal crime, but state laws can also apply if, for example, you forge false birth certificates, driver's licenses, or other documents. Manufacturing goods and selling them while claiming they are a name-brand item, such as selling counterfeit shoes, is also considered an act of fraud.

Loan Fraud

Loan fraud occurs when a person or business knowingly makes a false, material statement to a bank, financial institution, mortgage lender, or federal agency in order to obtain a loan. It's a crime even if the lender doesn't lose any money. Making a false statement to influence or mislead the decision-making process is enough.

Credit Card Fraud

Another common form of fraud occurs when someone fraudulently obtains, uses, or forges a credit card. Credit card fraud can occur when, for example, a server obtains your credit card numbers when you pay for your restaurant bill and uses that information to make a purchase; or when a person finds your wallet and uses your cards. In more sophisticated operations, hackers might gain access to your credit card information when you purchase something online or by tricking you into updating your payment information on a fake website.

Penalties for Committing Fraud Crimes

Committing any type of fraud can lead to some significant criminal penalties. Depending on the state in which you live and the crime you're charged with, fraud can be either a felony or misdemeanor offense. Some fraud offenses carry increasing penalties based on losses to a victim, while other fraud offenses impose stiff penalties based on the fraudulent scheme or scam alone. For instance, a person convicted of federal mail fraud faces up to 20 years in prison.

Jail or Prison Time for Fraud Convictions

Fraud convictions bring with them the serious possibility of a jail or prison sentence. Though sentences differ widely, a misdemeanor conviction can lead to up to a year in a local jail, while a felony conviction can lead to multiple years in prison. Federal charges can lead to 10 years or more in federal prison. When deciding the appropriate sentence, judges will generally look at the nature of the current offense (amount of harm done, targeting of any vulnerable victims), the defendant's criminal records, and the public safety interests involved.

A court can also impose a probation sentence. Receiving a probation sentence will be more likely if the offense was minor, a first-time offense, or involved mitigating circumstances. Probation allows you to serve your sentence without having to go to jail or prison, but it is not a "get out of jail free" sentence either. Probation limits your freedom significantly. Probation can last months or years, and while on probation, you must obey specific conditions the court imposes. Violating any of the conditions could land you back behind bars.

Fines and Restitution for Fraud Convictions

Fines for fraud convictions are very common, and like incarceration sentences, they can differ significantly depending on the circumstances of the case. Fines for misdemeanor violations can be a few thousand dollars or less, while felony convictions can bring fines of well over $10,000. Fines typically go to the government coffers.

On top of fines, a judge will usually order the defendant to pay back victims for any losses they incurred due to the crime. Court orders for victim compensation are known as restitution. Restitution payments typically go directly to victims and take precedence over fine payments to the government.

Find an Attorney

While not all types of fraud are criminal, anyone suspected of or being investigated for fraud needs to speak to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The different types of fraud crimes that exist make it possible for prosecutors to charge you with a wide number of crimes, some you might not even be aware of.

If you speak to investigators without legal advice, you might unwittingly damage your case or provide the investigators with the evidence they need to charge you with a crime. Talking to a local defense lawyer who knows how to manage criminal investigations and how to defend your rights through the entire criminal justice process is the only way to ensure you are protected.

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